I've Got a Feeling
The first in a series of posts inspired by Get Back.
One of the best things about Peter Jackson’s Get Back is the amount of brilliant writing it has inspired. I’ll put together a list of my favourite pieces about it soon. Rather than trying to write a definitive review - too intimidating - I thought I’d write a series of posts on various aspects of it. This one is free, others will be behind The Ruffian’s modest paywall (and regular non-Beatles Ruffian content will be continuing alongside).
Although I never thought of it as my favourite Beatles song, I’ve always had a thing for I’ve Got a Feeling. I like it, but my affection is hard to justify, and vulnerable to critique. A few months ago I read someone dismissing it as a throwaway effort, a nothingy song, made by a band too tired to care. And I thought, you know what, he’s right!
Once you start thinking about it, it’s obvious that the structure of the song is rickety, a cowboy job; two half-ideas welded together. (Most of the song is Paul’s, the middle eight - Everybody had a hard year… - is John’s.) There’s not much of a melody, unusually for McCartney. The lyrics are simple to the point of vacuity. There are no surprising chord progressions or, in keeping with the Get Back project, sonic innovation. We are a long way from Eleanor Rigby or Strawberry Fields.
One of the many interesting things about watching Get Back is watching the band identify particular parts of a song that aren’t working. At one point we hear George Harrison locate a weak spot in I’ve Got a Feeling: the section where Paul belts out “All these days I been wandering around…”. It doesn’t really go anywhere, it hangs on one note for an age. Paul agrees with George, noting that it’s just raw vocal power carrying the line at that point. But he never gets round to fixing it.
As I was watching Get Back, this was one of the many thoughts I had in the back of my mind: that I’ve been overrating that song. But when we get to the final sessions, downstairs at Apple, and then the rooftop performance of it, I didn’t feel like that at all.
The band know it back to front now. Paul and Ringo are locked into their groove. Billy Preston is killing it at the keyboard. John is throwing down that riff, George’s bluesy lead guitar wheels around it. Paul - who we know is going through a lot at this time, as they all are - sounds so happy, shouting and whooping and engaging John in call and response (Oh yeah - Oh yeah?).
When he opens up his throat and powers through that one-note line - oh man. It’s amazing!
I haven’t been overrating I’ve Got a Feeling. I’ve been underrating it. It’s thrilling and irresistible and cathartic. It’s just difficult to explain why.
I should probably have just trusted in how I responded to it in the first place. Here’s George Saunders, from his book about writing fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:
We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs - or doesn’t - in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment - when we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the 'knowing’ at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.
The Beatles might not have put it this way, but I think they would have agreed. For them, music evokes a superior form of knowledge to words - at least, to words that are not in the service of a song, or a joke - and constitutes a superior form of communication. As individuals, they maybe took this philosophy too far: one reason there was so much pent-up tension in the band by 1969 is that they relied almost exclusively on songs to communicate with each other about difficult things1. John and Paul wrote or played songs to each other rather than talk about the strains in their relationship. In 1968 George wrote Not Guilty about his unhappiness about how John and Paul treated him, and while we can’t know for sure I bet he said more in the song than he ever said to his bandmates in conversation.
But this is what they believed art was for and it’s what they did well. Jazz and rock musicians talk about feel a lot - an indefinable, inexplicable quality in the way something is played that resists notation and goes beyond technical facility. As instrumentalists, The Beatles were masters of feel. Ringo, for instance, didn’t have the technical mastery of a John Bonham, but his drumming, strange though it might sound to say about drumming, is full of feeling: it responds attentively and supportively to whichever song he is playing. In the film you can see that reflected in his personality: he puts himself in the service of the others, without ever being servile. George talks admiringly of the guitar god Eric Clapton, who to my ears never played a solo as emotionally eloquent as the one in Something. (I could write out words to each phrase in that solo, except that the words, any words, would sound terribly inadequate.) Billy Preston, of course, knew a thing or two about feel.
The primacy of feel and feeling in twentieth century popular music is partly why it took so long for Serious People to acknowledge its importance. So much of its poetry and power derives from what can’t be represented on a musical stave (McCartney, talking about why he never stuck with piano lessons, said that the black dots on a page just didn’t look like music to him). The tone and phrasing of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet or Billie Holiday’s voice are impossible to transcribe, yet both are high artistic achievements. The age of electric instrumentation and recording greatly expanded music’s palette, opening up new possibilities of timbre and texture not easily articulated with a technical vocabulary. Those teenage girls screaming at The Beatles in 1964 understood the musical revolution taking place better than the middle-aged critics waving it away.
That isn’t to say that pop songs can’t be analysed or that songwriters don’t think in those terms. After all, that’s what we see the band doing when they fix up songs in rehearsal.2 Lennon and McCartney, and particularly the latter, loved the craft of songwriting. McCartney sometimes cites Here, There and Everywhere as his favourite of his own songs because of the way the middle section resolves perfectly back into the verse (but to love her is to need her everywhere…). But, as Lennon would remind his partner from time to time, sometimes you can be too crafty: thinking too hard about a song can get in the way of its main task, which is to convey emotion.
Maybe McCartney didn’t fix that section in I’ve Got a Feeling, or anything else about the song, because he was exhausted and dispirited. But maybe he sensed this was one of those occasions where he could ignore the analytical side of his brain and let ‘feel’ carry the day. And maybe, in the midst of everything, this came as a blessed relief. He and the others were tangled up in the internal politics of the band. The only time they were truly in synch was when they were playing a song. Performing allowed them to remember, and to express, the way they really felt about each other.
The Beatles composed many songs that are musically and lyrically clever and I’ve Got a Feeling isn’t one of them. If you love it, you can’t point to melodic invention or brilliant wordplay and say ‘this is why it’s good’. But perhaps that is the point. I’ve Got a Feeling is a song about - not about, that is - a feeling. Which, when you think about it, is pretty clever.
The Beatles did 101 takes of Not Guilty during the White Album sessions, before giving up on it. I can hardly begin to parse the psychological dynamics in play there.
There is a moment captured on tape though not included in Get Back that’s revealing both about how they worked and of what Paul had in mind for the song’s emotional torque. After Paul closes out that bridge bit (…somebody who looked like you) everything stops except for George’s guitar, which plays descending notes to bring us back to the main riff. “It's coming down too fast, the note,” Paul tells George in an early rehearsal. “There shouldn't be any recognisable jumps. It's got to be like pain. At the moment, it's like a riff. Do anything that's like it's crying...It's, like, falling, falling!” George nails it.